Punk-Era Reissue Blasts Back From the Past

Vancouver Complication, now available on CD for the first time, documents an explosive time in local music

Rock 'n' roll began its recorded life in small, makeshift studios. And in the late '70s, after many years of growing tanned and tubby in the palatial recording houses of L.A., it was kidnapped and dragged back to these mottled little rooms for deprogramming. The Ramones and the Sex Pistols had by then already proved that Boston and Boz Scaggs did not provide the template for all new music, and that even Fleetwood Mac's uptempo numbers did not represent rock at its most energetic. Once again, the cellars and garages of North America made an unholy racket, as loose networks of outcasts and self-designated punks taught themselves a raw, original form of music that sparked a pop-culture revolution.

One of the most isolated of these safe houses was a green bungalow on a hillside in Burnaby, where CBC technician Chris Cutress lived with his mother and the modest eight-track recording studio, Sabre Sound, that he'd built in the basement. Here, through the winter and spring of 1978-79, Cutress, his assistant Jay Leslie, and Steve Macklam, a young CBC music journalist and budding manager who had recently moved back to Canada from London, England, tried to capture a full cross section of Vancouver's independent music scene, which had exploded over the previous months to become one of the strongest on the continent.

The eventual result of their experiment, conducted entirely on unpaid time, was Vancouver Complication, an LP whose reputation as a classic of homemade punk and new-wave music is about to be revived by a (somewhat belated) 25th-anniversary CD reissue, due out Tuesday (February 1) on Joe "Shithead" Keithley's Sudden Death label.

(In the spirit of punk philanthropy, all proceeds from the CD will go to the Vancouver Food Bank, as will funds raised by the release party scheduled for February 19 at the WISE Hall [1882 Adanac Street].)

"As of early December '78 we just started bringing in bands," Cutress recalls on the line to the Straight from CBC's downtown headquarters, where he still works as a recording engineer. "The idea was that we'd record Saturday and mix Sunday. And we tried to get two songs from each band. Some of them ended up taking a little less time in the studio, others needed more. But we tried to keep to the two-day session rule."

This chain of weekend visits from the city's tightly knit but eclectic community of self-made performers produced a wide range of sounds, from the furious barre-chord attack of the Dishrags, the Subhumans, and Keithley's newly formed D.O.A. to the lean, British-tinged pop of the Pointed Sticks and Active Dog, and from there out to the angular art-school jams of U-J3RK5, Exxotone, and [e?].

All of this was according to a concept born months beforehand. Grant McDonagh, now the owner of local music mecca Zulu Records but back then one of the minds behind the Xerox-and-staple fanzine Snotrag, had approached Macklam with the proposal of producing a cheap eight-inch flexidisc presenting a handful of Vancouver's punk and new-wave bands. This humble sampler, McDonagh thought, could be included in an issue of his magazine as a response to an influential compilation of Akron, Ohio's independent musicians that had just been released by the legendary British label Stiff Records. But Macklam, who had befriended most of the members of Vancouver's scene, soon had a bigger idea: a full-length LP on proper vinyl, documenting a local movement that he believed was as vibrant, odd, and daring as any he'd encountered in London or elsewhere.

"It was very fluid at the time, and a very accelerated framework, so it was difficult to nail down, but basically everybody that mattered we recorded, and everybody that we recorded mattered," Macklam explains on the line from his office at Macklam/Feldman Management, from which he now manages such high-powered acts as Elvis Costello, Diana Krall, Norah Jones, and the Tragically Hip. "Vancouver and many communities were one year or so behind London or New York, so it was maybe a bit of an echo scene. But it was very, very good, and there were a lot of great, original bands in Vancouver then. A lot of them were sleeping on my couch at the time, so I was lucky enough to know everybody, and hung out with all different factions."

From this central position Macklam acted as coordinator, diplomat, and goad, persuading Cutress and Leslie to donate studio time and engineering skills, and shepherding the bands into Sabre Sound's cramped 10-by-12-foot quarters. ("It was interesting," Cutress says of the size constraints, "because we had mike cords running into bedrooms and out on the back porch to try to get some isolation between the instruments.")

With the sessions wrapped up in April 1979, a benefit gig took place at O'Hara's, a ramshackle ballroom perched on a dock at the northern tip of Main Street. This raised most of the $1,750 needed to press the first 1,000 copies. Later that summer, Vancouver Complication was released.

Packaged in a stark black-and-white cover, the record forms a survey of an independent music scene whose diversity had driven it to a creative peak. At one point, for example, the Subhumans' disturbing and hilarious "Death to the Sickoids", revving like a homemade armoured car being thrown into gear, runs headlong into "U-J3RK5 Work for Police", a jagged, minute-long blast from the band whose lineup included Jeff Wall and Rodney Graham, both of whom went on to international careers as conceptual artists. This in turn gives way the understated, '50s-flavoured pop of Private School's "Rock & Roll Radio". Exxotone's hiccupping keyboards share time with Tim Ray's cool and poised melodies; D.O.A.'s ruthless three-man assault jostles with [e?]'s spare synthesizer and guitar.

According to those involved, this unlikely but powerful mixture, reflecting distinct musical genres without absolute attachments to any one of them, was a product of Vancouver's cultural isolation at the time.

"The one thing that I always thought separated Vancouver from the bigger cities was that people just kind of played for themselves and tried to be creative," recalls Keithley, D.O.A.'s legendary leader and the man in charge of the CD reissue. "If you're in a bigger city like Toronto or L.A. or New York or London, then you're usually trying to fit into something that you think a record company might want. That stymies creative growth. That's why I think you had some of the more interesting scenes, like in San Francisco and in Athens, Georgia, and in Vancouver. Because there was no dangling carrot, it was like, 'Well, I guess you just get up and play, and then we have a party afterwards and scrounge money for beer.' "

Grant McDonagh agrees, comparing the scene to a large, close family whose members were wildly different from one another. "It was unique in that Vancouver was almost the perfect size then," he explains on the line from Zulu Records. "If you have a small population base, you don't have enough people in the arts and you really can't get anything done. And if it's too big, you get defined groups--the art students stay to themselves, as do the rockabilly guys and the punks.

"But Vancouver was the perfect size for a scene like that to happen," McDonagh continues. "All the strange folks from North Vancouver and White Rock and New Westminster gravitated to these gigs, because it was the only game in town. And there was usually a gig a weekend. So it wasn't derivative. It was influenced, most certainly, but because people went to the same parties, and the punks got in the same conversations with art students, things happened that wouldn't have happened in other cities."

The common enemy, McDonagh says, was commercial radio, and for the brief period that Vancouver Complication calls up so vividly, the noise made by local recordings and shows all but drowned out the factory rock and prefab disco pumped out by the major labels. Instead of the K-Tel corporation's top-10 anthologies, there were the tight, sarcastic songs of the K-Tels; instead of ELO, there was D.O.A.; instead of Styx, the Pointed Sticks.

Prominent Vancouver songwriter Carl Newman of the New Pornographers was only a kid at the time, but he remembers the record clearly. "My older brother bought Vancouver Complication when I was, like, 10 years old," Newman explains when reached at his home, "and 'The Marching Song' by Pointed Sticks was one of my favourite songs. I thought that was just as good as any of the hits on the radio. And then when I was a teenager, I remember going back and looking through my brother's records that he had basically abandoned, and going, 'Hey, I know this record,' and putting it on and thinking it was great. I just love it--I mean, it really proves that the Vancouver punk scene was just as good as any punk scene anywhere."

A quarter of a century has passed since the making of Vancouver Complication, and in an odd but somehow fitting coincidence with the reissue, Chris Cutress is now in the process of selling the green bungalow in Burnaby where all but seven of the 20 tracks on the original LP were recorded. Judged by today's standards, the technical quality of those recordings will fall on many ears as the audio equivalent of a photocopy made by a machine low on toner. But Steve Macklam wouldn't have it any other way.

"This is just a personal prejudice," he says, "but if you're a fan of the blues or jazz, and you hear Thelonious Monk stories or how the Robert Johnson sessions went down, in every case the technology was not the issue. What there was was this impossible-to-stop creative energy taking place. And a lot of times the technology gets in the way of that. You see, in Vancouver, that was really happening. It really was. You couldn't stop this music from happening."